Snatching the sound of Manannán's song on the bite of a northwesterly wind
Jan. 15, 2023

Tuesday Morning, 5.30am (The Voyage of Bran)


Rain and mud are all around us at the moment, but there is wonder there too. The ancient myth of ‘The Voyage of Bran’ helps us to find the extraordinary within the ordinary and (with apologies to Simon and Garfunkel) the beauty of Tuesday Morning, 5.30am.

Journal entry:

 13th January, Friday

“Boggy ground, although I am high on the hill.
 Standing in the cluster of four oaks waiting.
 Waiting for I don’t know what.

I turn, and behind me, the sunrises in red and gold
 Through the dense brush of woodland that lines the horizon.
 How wonderful is that?

What is even more wonderful is that, further to the west,
 Another sunrise will break over other woodlands, but this one
 Will be through the lattice work of these trees I stand under.

And so the sunrise is shouldered across the land from tree to tree
 And the one human who is waiting… 
 … for something.”

Episode Information:

Photograph of a pair of walking boots beside a shallow bay of waterIn this episode I read extracts from ‘The Voyage of Bran’ (Imram Brain). I use the Kuno Meyer’s translation of it which can be read here: Voyage of Bran.

I also read the first lines of William Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence.’ 

You can read more about Sharon Blackie’s ‘sit spot’ challenge in her book The Enchanted Life published in 2021 by September Publishing. 

John Moriarty’s (2011) Nostos: An autobiography is published by Lilliput Press. 

For more information about Nighttime on Still Waters

You can find more information and photographs about the podcasts and life aboard the Erica on our website at noswpod.com. It will also allow you to become more a part of the podcast and you can leave comments, offer suggestions, and reviews. You can even, if you want, leave me a voice mail by clicking on the microphone icon. 

General Details

In the intro and the outro, Saint-Saen's The Swan is performed by Karr and Bernstein (1961) and available on CC at archive.org.

Two-stroke narrowboat engine recorded by 'James2nd' on the River Weaver, Cheshire. Uploaded to Freesound.org on 23rd June 2018. Creative Commons Licence. 

Piano and keyboard interludes composed and performed by Helen Ingram.

All other audio recorded on site. 

Contact
For pictures of Erica and images related to the podcasts or to contact me, follow me on:

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Transcript

JOURNAL ENTRY

 13th January, Friday

“Boggy ground, although I am high on the hill.
Standing in the cluster of four oaks waiting.
Waiting for I don’t know what.

I turn, and behind me, the sunrises in red and gold
Through the dense brush of woodland that lines the horizon.
How wonderful is that?

What is even more wonderful is that, further to the west,
Another sunrise will break over other woodlands, but this one
Will be through the lattice work of these trees I stand under.

And so the sunrise is shouldered across the land from tree to tree
And the one human who is waiting… for something.”

[MUSIC]

WELCOME

 The clouds have begun to clear, but there is no moon tonight. Above us, sharp splinters of starlight, diamond studs on the great bowl of night. Below, the water shivers with its own shards of light, liquid, morphing, shimmering. The thermometer is dipping. This is the narrowboat Erica narrowcasting into the night to you, wherever you are. Come inside. It's warm and cosy here. there's a spot beside the stove waiting for you, the kettle is singing, the biscuit barrel is full. It's great to see you. Thank you so much for coming. Welcome aboard. 

[MUSIC]

NEWS FROM THE MOORINGS  

The theme of Atlantic fronts sweeping in wave after wave of blustery rain continues - although things are set for a drop in temperature over the next few days. The ground is getting very saturated and the towpath just here, which sees a lot of foot and bicycle traffic, is in places a slippery mire. In the fields, declivities fill with standing puddles of steely grey. The owl-chapelled oak just above us is situated in a bowl-like hollow, which has now formed into a moat. On days of running clouds and wind-swept skies, it is as if the oak is rooted in the clouds rather than soil.

All the wet and, particularly churned mud, makes life a little harder and I have heard more than one boater ruing the weather. The bow or stern, often the halfway house, the buffer, between inside and outside, takes the brunt of the mud. Where do you keep muddy boots? It's the same challenge for those living in a house, but somehow the more restricted living space, makes it more pronounced. Having a canopy over the stern has made such a difference and has converted it to a boot room - among its many other functions! It's even harder for those with dogs, of course. Although, I have really been missing my walks with Penny recently. Being short coated and with a feline dislike for mud, it was never really too much of a problem.

These challenges aside, it's good to see the rain and to feel soft earth. I am hoping that at least some of the rain gets a chance to sink into the ground and replenish the water tables. 

Almost within the hour of last week's episode going live in which I said I hadn't seen the juvenile swan for a couple of weeks, when I looked out of the window and saw he was back. We later noticed two adults preening on the bank, but worryingly quickly realised they weren't the usual pair. This is a crucial time in the year for swans to establish their territory, to nest and raise cygnets. Even more worryingly, dad appeared and was coming off much the worse, with the newcomer becoming increasingly aggressive. It's hard not to feel emotionally connected. He has weathered 3 winters here and, with his partner, learnt to build nests and help raise juveniles. It's easy to feel this ridiculous sense of attachment, even a sense of paternal protection. And yet, at the same time, this newcomer could easily be Cyril, the lone survivor of their first hatching - with whom we experienced step by step his growing up, his first attempts to fly, the live independently. 

While the contest was continuing, I could see mum with youngster coming up the canal. The females, particularly when offspring are close tend to be much more aggressive - at least that how it appears with this couple. 

The next day one of the newcomers was still around and I assumed that they had succeeded in displacing the original swans and were taking over the territory. However, amazingly, our old two were back the following day. I haven't seen anything of the newcomers since and mum and dad continue to patrol the stretch rattling their beaks on Erica's hull and peering in through the window to beg food. Junior once more is nowhere to be seen. The swan soap opera continues!

[MUSIC]

CABIN CHAT

[MUSIC]

WHEN DARKNESS FALLS

It’s 7.30, damp and chilly. First light, cock’s crow. The eastern edges of the sky bruised with the diluted yellows and ochres; barley sugar water, tobacco juice of predawn. Over to my left, the smudge of a quartering moon floats mistily behind racing veils of cloud. A blustery wind whips down the hill into the valley where the canal sits. The wind catches and plays with crow call.

It’s not picturesque here. It is not a spot to attract visitors, although a passing walker may pause a second or two before moving on. It is not the kind of location that you will find paraded in technicolour splendour on Instagram accounts. 

That’s the point – Tuesday morning at 5.30 – the lean, bad lands of our weeks; often nondescript, unexceptional, unnoteworthy. In other words, ordinary. Common place – even a little discomforting. That is why I have chosen this place. That is why I am here.

Although I say that this place is not picturesque, there is beauty here. A stretch of water whose colours change with every breath of wind; plied by ducks and the great bowl of sky above – so how can it not be beautiful?

The ground is boggy underfoot, waterlogged, saturated by the waves of soaking rain running off the hill behind me. As I place my foot on the ground, water seeps and glistens. There is a slight shallow bowl cut into the canal bank. It’s a good place for sheep or horses to drink. A small khaki pile of horse scat, by my right foot is testament to this, and two new strands of tape across the opening to ward against entering too deeply into the canal – which savagely drops away a few feet into the water, indicates acknowledgment of its continued use. In fact, a few moments ago I came across three new horses that I haven’t seen before. Two looking very splendid in their quilted jackets. A smaller pony, more inquisitive, is wrapped in a more tattered garment – like the old gaberdine Macintoshes we used to wear to school. It hangs and flaps in the wind. The soil here is churned, sculpted by two sets of large hoofprints and one set of smaller ones.

The water is restless. There is constant movement, although in this little pool it is almost still. I can see the gritty stones on the bottom. Penny used to come here. It was our halfway point on our morning walk. She was never sure about putting her feet into the water. Further along the canal, where it is not sheltered by the canal-side elms and alder, the surface is rough -the wind has scuffed the sheen off the varnish. Scarlet lamps of rosehip hang. Dimmed by winter’s ravage and matt. Winter winds do that. Strip away the polish, the varnish shine. The hungry thrush or redwing don’t mind.   

I’ve been brought here for a reason. I have been re-reading John Moriarty’s deeply affecting reflection on the legend of ‘The Voyage of Bran’.

Voyage (the rowings) of Bran thought to have first been written down in the 7th century.

[READING]

She sang…

[READING]

Having described the isle’s wonderous location and that within it is all joy and beauty, she goes on…

[READIN] 

Here is found on gentleness and unalloyed joy.

There is no “wailing or treachery In the familiar cultivated land,
There is nothing rough or harsh, But sweet music striking on the ear.
Without grief, without sorrow, without death,
Without any sickness, without debility,”

The woman’s song goes on to describe other islands (there are 50 we are told) – as equally wonderful – some rich with wealth and luxury, but no apparent greed or any sense of the drive to acquire and grasp. Another is filled with the most beautifully gowned women, but, again, there is no sense of proprietorial interest or objectification. Another in the place of laughter and sport.

[READING]

Having listed all these islands and extolled their wonders (although our surviving texts only include 28, more no doubt have been lost), the lady’s final beseeching quatrain instructs Bran:

[READING]

The legend then continues.

[READING]

The next day Bran readies three coracles and set out to sea, in three companies of nine in each boat.

They voyage for two days and two nights, when Bran and his company see coming towards them an amazing sight. It is a great chariot drawn by four horses cresting over the breaking foamings of the sea as if it were dry land. In the chariot is Manannán Mach Lir – Manannán , son of Lir, one of the most powerful of gods and god of the sea.

Manannán  is a complex figure who features prominently in Celtic and Norse mythologies – part god, part wizard, part sage, part trickster.    

As Manannán  approaches the awestruck Bran adrift in the big seas of uncertainty and dreaming; afloat on the bobbings of his coracle, he too sings a song – there is something so potent with music and its association with the inexpressible elements of our existence. It is perhaps not surprising that this is the chosen medium for the gods here to convey their message.

Manannán begins:

[READING]

What amazing words of hope and yet at the same time what tragic words these are – ‘all this beauty, all this splendour, and you cannot see it.’

[READING]

If ever there is a myth that needs to speak to us today and which speaks deeply into my psyche, it is the song of Manannán Mach Lir. John Moriarty calls this ‘silver branch perception.’ And we have lost it. “Here on the austere grey Atlantic swell, you do not see the wonders that surround you – outside the tarred hide of your little coracle, Bran. You might be a great king and leader Bran, you might have accomplished great feats and amassed wealth and reputation beyond imagining, but the wonders? But, the things beneath your feet. The things that lie just the other side of the rim of your little boat? Bran, them thou seest not.”

And it troubles me that I cannot see them either – though, I am becoming increasingly aware of the songs that lead me to them when I watch the rooks at play, or the cormorant glisten oily in the winter light, when I stand among the conclave of oaks on the hill at sunrise on an unremarkable day. In the words of Sharon Blackie, ‘we have lost our ability to celebrate the extraordinary in the ordinary.’ Because of that, our landscapes and weatherscapes no longer sustain us and we live us nomads battling for survival in a hostile terrain.

For the past few hundred years we have done such a good job of training our minds to screen out the world in which our coracles bob and drift so that we are convinced that this small life is all there is and all there has ever been. And those times when we would glimpse Manannán Mach Lir riding his chariot over the shifting – storm-wracked – seas of our existence, and catch the echoes of his song on the salty bite of the north-westerly wind, we chide ourselves and dismiss it as childish nonsense which we should have long outgrown.

At the dawn of the 19th century, Blake wrote to Thomas Butt,

“May God us keep
From Single vision & Newtons [sic] sleep”

God did keep him from that – though many considered him insane or bordering on insanity. Such is the penalty of refusing to close one’s mind to wonder, from beholding the extraordinary in the ordinary.

[READING]

And that is why I am here. This is my Tuesday morning at 5.30am moment – although it is neither Tuesday nor 5.30 a.m. A dull time on a dull day in a neglected corner of a field. I am being utterly unfair, but what I mean is ordinary. Many, many years ago I wrote a poem that ended ‘thank God for the common and overlooked things.’ It bore more than a passing resemblance to Gerald Manley Hopkins and I can’t remember any more of it. But I meant it, and have always meant it – and still do. Especially now. The overlooked beauty and wonder of the common things.


That’s what Manannán and the woman clothed in strange raiment are reminding us. ‘You’re missing it, Bran. You and your narrow world that has shrunk to the size of spinning coracle are missing the wonder and the grandeur, the savage, ferocious, beauty of life. And do you know something else, Bran? Where these worlds of enchantment and glory are? You do not have to go far, they are not far distant, beyond your reach. You are already there. Just look over the gunwales of your boat, Bran. It is the very stuff upon which your existence floats. The plains of delight, the plains of joy, the silver, shining plain is the ordinary. You have just trained yourself not to feel it.

No wonder on describing this myth in his book Nostos, John Moriarty concludes “surely this leaves us with no choice but to muster three companies of nine and put out to sea.”

And so, this year, I have taken up a challenge that was issued by Sharon Blackie. Go out alone for a while. To the same place, any place – it doesn’t have to be special, or beautiful, or redolent with significance. In fact, it is probably better if it wasn’t.  But it must be one where you can sit undisturbed and just be. She calls it the ‘sit spot.’ Somewhere you can regularly go to.  Sit and listen, sit and watch, sit and talk, sing, whatever, but become part of the place. As rooted and as natural to that place as the tiny spiders and beetling bugs, as the birds and the clover, and reeds and the rain. Grow into it. Begin to know and feel its moods as surely as it will begin to feel yours. Watch the turn of the seasons. Feel and become part of the interweaving lunar and solar cycles. Experience it through all your senses.

I have two sit spots – two Tuesday 5.30 am spots. Spots where I can begin to feel re-rooted. Spots where I hear the clearest Manannán Mac Lir’s song and where I can begin to peer over the side of my coracle adrift in such a desperate sea. Spots where I can relearn to see the extraordinary in the ordinary.

And, at least once a week, I aim to bring you to one of these spots. To record what I hear, tell you what I see, what I feel. And for a short while you too can experience in some way what I am here. Nothing amazing, but something ordinary, common place, unremarkable, overlooked – and in that place find the remarkable, the extraordinary, the wonderful – that we are indeed afloat in Mag Mell.   

 I wrote this a while back.

You Would, Wouldn’t You? 

FOR IF YOU WERE TO stand on the river bank

        beside the tall, wild rushes and the dark, reedy places where the trout and the shy chubb hide

      and you were to jump....

                                        ..... you would jump with such joy, such spontaneity, such exultant hoops of laughter, that the waters would break like crystals, hanging like a beaded curtain in the air, to welcome you.

 You would, wouldn't you?

 

 FOR IF YOU WERE TO stand beneath the stars

       and you looked up into that cavernous bowl of giants and tiny heroes spun with the filigree lace of ancient stories

       and you were to dance...

                          .... you would dance until your heart burst and the silence of the universe rushed into your soul like the floods of Noah and you would embrace what it is to be truly lost in beauty and truth.

You would, wouldn't you?

 

FOR IF YOU WERE TO stand on the grassy hill of your childhood

          and among the golden fields of dandelion clocks you were to stretch out your arms until you felt your feet leaving the ground

      and you found yourself flying...

                          .... you would fly fearlessly and high, shattering the silvered air and loosing forever the sullen bonds that hold you earthbound. And looking down, lark-like, you would scatter the thrill of your song upon the countryside and city.

You would, wouldn't you?

 SO...

       ....  IF YOU ARE TO open this day,            

           …. not just any day, but THIS very day that awaits the touch of your footstep                                 

 Then let it be with open arms wide and the joy that only you can bring to this world

SIGNING OFF

This is the narrowboat Erica signing off for the night and wishing you a very peaceful, restful and warm night. Goodnight. 

WEATHER LOG